Piano Lessons
 

Mary McIntosh
 

© 2010 by Mary McIntosh

 

Photo of a child's hands playing the piano.

The shrill ringing of the telephone woke me from a deep sleep. I opened one eye The clock said 3:10 a.m. I groaned as I tumbled out of bed and groped for the phone. I hated having my sleep interrupted, but I knew what this call might mean. It was probably word of my mother’s death.

Struggling to return to wakefulness, I knew Mother, at the age of 95, was ready to let go, but was I? I shivered. Was it from cold, or fear, or my damn niggling conscience?

Hello. Yes, Frank. I’m so sorry. Was the end peaceful? I’ll be there just as soon as I straighten things out at the office. I’ll let you know what plane I’m getting. Go ahead and make the funeral arrangements for later in the week. Goodbye.”

I continued to sit by the phone, trembling. This call was forcing me to examine myself, and I didn’t like what I was seeing.

I knew I hadn’t given Mother the attention she needed, and wanted, these past few months. But what could I do? Virginia was a long way for me to traipse back and forth. I had an important job, and really didn’t have the time, or at least I’d convinced myself of this. Besides my brother Frank was only an hour away, and Mother had friends who popped in to see her almost daily.

Stretching my cramped legs, I walked into the kitchen to put on water for a cup of tea. I grabbed an afghan off the back of the couch, and curled up in the corner as my thoughts returned to Mother.

Petite, and a little rotund, Mother was the quiet, steadfast member of our family. Born in England in the 1800s, her main role in life was to take care of her husband and family, and this she did well. She never seemed to get overly excited, like my dad often did, but maintained a serene demeanor, often with a smile on her face. She had a quiet strength and graciousness about her that was soon visible to those who knew her.

Pictures of my mother now flashed through my mind. I could feel her presence. I remembered, when I was still quite young, how I’d pull up a tall green wooden stool, and sit on it while I watched her make pastry. Almost every day she baked something, but pies were her specialty––apple, blackberry, and lemon meringue. English recipes are in pounds and ounces, instead of cups, and luckily she had brought her kitchen weighing scales from England. On a clean surface, she weighed out the flour then, using only lard and cold water, made enough pastry for a week of pies for our family of five. After carefully rolling it out, she wrapped in wax paper what pastry she didn’t need that day, and stored it in the icebox (later a refrigerator). When ready to make the pie, she held the pastry up in her hands, and superbly placed it over the pie plate for a bottom and/or top crust, or both. As many times as I watched her make pastry, I was never able to roll it out as smoothly as she did.

I got up to get another cup of tea. My thoughts now went back to a much earlier time. I recalled the upright piano we had in our sitting room in London. I believed it had magical powers. I was only about six years old then, and at school I was learning to knit. I was excited about the plain-looking orange potholder I was making. Each night, before going to bed, I’d count the rows, and place it on top of the piano. In the morning, bounding down the stairs, the first thing I did was to climb up onto the piano stool, grab the potholder, and I’d almost always discover one or two more rows had been added. My mother told me that as long as I was good, the fairies would visit each night and knit for me. When later I came to realize the part my mother had played in these magical moments, I loved her that much more.

I continued to sit in the chair, trembling. This phone call was forcing me to re-examine myself, and I didn’t like what I was seeing.

As my own life became important, and I got busier, I had pushed my mother into the background, and now it hurt. Was the trip I’d taken to Europe a few months earlier, making me feel so miserable? Already planned and paid for, Frank agreed I should go. Shortly before I left, though, mother’s condition worsened, and she had to go into the hospital. I should have gone to see her, but I knew I couldn’t stand and watch her stoically wait for her own death. She’d be well taken care of, I thought. And so I went to Europe instead.

The real truth was I had a morbid fear of death.

* * * * *

I’m thinking of holding Bible Study classes for the neighbors once a week,” my dad said to me one day in 1932, “and I want you to learn to play the piano, so you can accompany us when we sing hymns. I’ve arranged for you to have lessons with Miss Peterson. She lives not far from here. It’s an easy walk. Each lesson will cost 50 cents. I expect you to practice hard, and learn to play well. As you know, we are in the midst of a Great Depression and it is not easy to spend money on frivolous things.” I didn’t like the idea of playing the piano in front of many people, but I said nothing. I’d learned that when my father told me I had to do something, I should always obey.

My fear of death had all started with these piano lessons.

"Step on a crack

                Break your mother’s back"

Often I’d chant this ditty to myself, especially when walking to Miss Peterson’s house. It helped make a game out of something I hated.

The weekly lessons were torture. Miss Peterson, a tall, thin spinster with gray hair that wisped around her face, wore pince-nez glasses on a black velvet ribbon around her neck. She pinched these onto her nose when looking at the piano book, and took them off when placing my fingers in the correct position. In my mind I could still see the piano, and hear the tick-tick noise the metronome made as its pendulum swung back and forth, to help me keep better time. Miss Peterson was the oldest person I’d ever seen, and every time she talked she spit. I thought her spitting was a disgusting habit, but then I was only 12 years old. I didn’t like Miss Peterson, and I didn’t like piano lessons.

Spring was in the air that warm and pleasant day, the day that left such an indelible mark on my life. I could smell it in the lilacs. I could see it in the opening of the leaves on the maple trees. The forsythia bush, which bloomed before its leaves, looked as if someone had dropped a golden carpet onto its branches.

As I skipped along the sidewalk, not paying attention to where I was going, just glad to have finished my piano lesson for another week, I chanted, “Step on a crack…” Suddenly I stopped, and recoiled, as I felt something soft under my left foot. I looked down. I’d just stepped on a dead squirrel, its paws frozen in the air, flies buzzing around. My toes curled, my body shivered, and I ran away as fast as I could.

I went back the following week to Miss Peterson’s and, of course, the dead squirrel was no longer there. I continued trying to please my parents by taking lessons, until they finally realized I was not going to become a piano virtuoso, and agreed to let me stop.

But the vision of the dead squirrel stayed in my mind. Even as an adult I found I couldn’t look at anything dead that was larger than a bug. When a young sparrow accidentally flew into my glass patio door one day, I had to ask a neighbor’s boy to pick up the dead bird, and dispose of it. My toes still curled, and I still froze. Was this abnormal fear associated with my long ago piano lessons? I wondered.

When I returned from Europe, I called Mother, who begged me to come home and visit. “I’ll be there just as soon as I can. I’ve got a lot to take care of at the office,” I said in my most business-like voice. As I replaced the receiver, I thought I heard a sob.

I didn’t go to see her. I could have gotten away. Was the fear of death, and knowing I might actually have to look at my dead mother so strong that it suffocated any sane reasoning? Was it really my mother’s death I was afraid to face, or my own? Could just stepping on a dead squirrel so many years ago have had such a profound effect on my life? Sitting alone in the dark with these thoughts tumbling around in my head, the dead squirrel was once again under my feet.

Now I had to go home for the funeral. This time I couldn’t escape to Europe.

The small country church in the little town in Virginia was filled. Many loved my mother, and had come to pay their respects. The service was dignified and beautiful, as my mother would have wished, and I maintained my composure throughout.

A few days later, after the cremation, only my brother, his wife, the minister, and Mr. Jason from the funeral parlor, attended the internment. Arriving at the cemetery frazzled, because I was late, I reached out to shake Mr. Jason’s hand. As I did, he switched a large green box from underneath his right arm to his left. I gasped as I realized what it was. It was my mother.

Once more I could feel the dead squirrel underfoot. Once more my toes curled, and I froze. Then the flood finally came.

Sobbing loudly I cried, “I should have been there for her. I never even got to say goodbye.”

A piano lesson––a dead squirrel––a death.

"Step on a crack

               Break your mother’s back"

It was not my mother’s back I broke––it was her heart.
 
 

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